|Eric Dial Spotlight|
I am now a junior at Western Michigan University and I spent my second sophomore semester abroad in New Zealand. I studied history and the native Maori culture at Otago University in Dunedin. One of the main reasons I chose New Zealand is my lack of foreign language ability; there are rare opportunities to study abroad without going to study a language and New Zealand is among the best places to meet people from a broad range of cultures.
Being such a very long way away from home—a twenty-two hour flight—gave me the chance to learn to live independently. The whole time I was overseas I never ran into a single person I knew before my experience. I found it was incredible to make lasting important friendships with so many amazing people.
I lived in a flat at a place called Toroa International House, which provided flats for 150 international students. I lived with four other guys, Khush, an Indian Fijian who grew up in New Zealand, Mike from Hong Kong, Hendrix, a Maori from the tip of New Zealand's North Island, and Takahiro from Tokyo, Japan. I also made important friendships with many people from around the world, including a film major from Los Angeles, an Arab-English Londoner studying physiology, an Iraqi med student, and a surprising number of Canadians. Overall, twenty-two different nationalities were represented at the Toroa House. Rarely, I think, does a more eclectic group come together to become friends and neighbors—between us we could say one word in seven languages. Yet it didn't matter, despite all those differences, 150 people from all over the globe lived together and forged an amazing little community, the strongest I have seen on any campus. New Zealand is a very international nation.
There are 4 million people on two major islands and large portions of the population are Maori (native New Zealanders), Pacific Islanders, Asians, and British descendants. My interest in culture and history compelled me to take the following classes: Maori Society, Maori Performing Arts, Pacific Islands history and ANZAC: New Zealand in the First World War All four of these classes were unlike anything offered in the US. In particular, the Maori Performing Arts, called Waiata, was a valuable class. I met and performed with more than thirty Maori students and became friends with many of them. We spent one weekend on a retreat, called a Wanganga, which mimics the traditional education system of the Maori. It was a huge success in forging us into a performance team, as opposed to simply being classmates.
Late in the semester, Te Kore Chilsom, an older Maori gentleman, invited us to visit his Marae, which is the community center for each Maori tribe. I was allowed to invite as many friends as I wanted, the cultural philosophy, he said, was that if you are good enough to be my friend and be welcome in my home (my Marae) then your friends are extended the same hospitality. The weekend there took us beyond the classroom and the book and into what a real Maori community center does for its members in everyday society. It's an amazing place where the Maori can come to practice their cultural traditions, which preserves the bi-cultural identity, being both Maori and Kiwis (New Zealanders). It also served to simply strengthen and establish relationships among the Maori community, arguably the most progressive and most successful colonized society, at reconciling and overcoming the ill effects of colonization, though with a self-admitted long way to go.
Te Kore, invited us into his peoples’ homes, told us all about his ancestors, who for the Maori are an integral part of a person’s identity. He showed us the historic site where his people's Pa (fortified village) once stood on high ocean cliffs so that it was never once taken in battle and its underground spring, which proved to be salvation to his ancestors during sieges. He showed us his mountain and his river, important resources and also part of one's identity in Maori thought. He showed us the gorgeous sunrise over the ocean at Huirapa (the name of the Marae) and all with the same deep warmth and hospitality as if we were his own family.
Besides exploring the people and cultures which I discovered in New Zealand, I also spent some time exploring the land, which means character-building. I laugh at the phrase character-building because I have generally used it to refer to mentally and physically difficult experiences that are often painful as they occur, but give you a huge sense of confidence and accomplishment when looked back upon. Two such instances come immediately to mind.
The first was a trip to three-day trip to Stewart Island that I took shortly before Easter. Stewart Island is a third small Island at the bottom of the country. It is a backpacker's dream and nightmare. The island was beautiful and teeming with green vegetation and birdlife, including Kiwis. On the first day I took a small plane across the island and landed on a beautiful sandy beach, then hiked several hours to a cabin where I spent the first night. I met a fellow traveler from California that day; he had already been hiking for eleven days on the island and only had two to go. He had once seen Western Michigan's Hockey team in a tournament and was one of the few people I met who had heard of us before they met me. My international friends were delighted to say they now know a guy from Kalamazoo.
The next day I got started at eight in the morning and soon found the trail was nothing more than pools of gooey mud up to my knees at the worst, then drop-offs into creeks with ravines nearly over my head. I climbed a steep ridge on a trail that was nothing but roots, rocks and mud—barely distinguishable from the surrounding forest. That was the most intense hike of my life. I didn't finish until slightly after eight that night—twelve hours later. As I was nearing the end of the hike, I heard a shout, "Hey Western Michigan, you out there?" My friend from California had come back up the trail a little ways after it got dark to see if I was alright. Every time I hear the name of my school now I still smile to myself thinking of the depth of human kindness I experienced in New Zealand, which is often forgotten by so many.
The following weekend was Easter weekend and I went to Mt. Cook, where Sir Edmund Hillary practiced to become the first man to climb Mt. Everest, for some easier hiking and camping than the week before on Stewart Island. Before falling asleep in my tent I heard avalanches up in the mountains, they sounded a bit of a cross between an airplane engine and thunder. Around one in the morning I heard something outside my tent; I thought it was a possum, large vermin in New Zealand. For the rest of the night I was bothered by this animal, it made loud squawks and other sounds and messed around my tent, despite my efforts from inside to drive it off. I got up the next morning having barely slept and found that my boot had been dragged a ways from my tent and that several of the tent stakes had been pulled up. As I rolled up my tent, a Kea, the world's only alpine parrot, flew in and startled me when it landed on my backpack. It squawked at me, the same sound the animal the night before had made. I looked up and ten more flew overheard squawking loudly. I started to laugh; it was mischievous parrots that had done all this to me. “Cheeky” is how the New Zealanders referred to them. Cheeky indeed.
I still find it difficult to truly describe and do justice to the whole experience; my words inadequate to the task. I cannot capture life there, only paint for you a few snapshots. I hope your interest was piqued by my descriptions, or that you at least found my stories entertaining. If you are considering studying abroad, give it some serious thought. The self confidence gained, broadened understanding and sense of the world, along with the personal character earned and reinforced from the whole experience is a priceless asset. If offered the chance to do it again I would not miss such a powerful opportunity.